Reducing the Risk from Radioactive Sources

by Carolyn Mac Kenzie

Each year the IAEA receives reports of serious injuries or deaths due to misuse or accidents involving sealed radioactive sources. Sealed radioactive sources are used widely in medicine, industry, and agriculture – by doctors to treat cancer, by radiographers to check welds in pipelines, or by specialists to irradiate food to prevent it from spoiling, for example. If these sources are lost or improperly discarded, a serious accident may result.

In addition, the security of sealed sources has become a growing concern, particularly the potential that such a source could be used as a radioactive dispersal device or “dirty bomb.” Preventing the loss or theft of sealed radioactive sources reduces both the risk of accidents and the risk that such sources could become an instrument of misuse.
In most countries, radioactive materials and activities that produce radiation are regulated. Those working with sealed radioactive sources are required not just to have proper credentials, but also the needed training and support to deal with unexpected circumstances that may arise when a source is used. Despite these measures, accidents involving sealed sources continue to be reported to the IAEA.

Among its many activities to improve the safety and security of sealed sources, the IAEA has been investigating the root causes of major accidents since the 1980s and publishing the findings so that others can learn from them. This information needs to be in the hands of those whose actions and decisions can reduce accidents by preventing a lost source from making it’s way into scrap metal. The IAEA has also developed an international catalogue of sealed radioactive sources, and provides assistance to countries to safely contain sources no longer in use.

To raise awareness, a Sealed Radioactive Sources Toolkit was issued that focuses on the long-term issues in safely and securely managing radioactive sealed sources.

The target audiences are government agencies, radioactive sealed source users in the medical, industrial and scrap yard industries and the public. These audiences may have the following interests:

Government Agencies

At the national level, several government agencies may be involved in the importation, use, transport, and disposal of sealed radioactive sources. Those working at such agencies and policy makers in general need to be aware of the safety and security issues that could arise from the use of sealed sources.

Medical Users

In medical settings, those using sealed radioactive sources need to be trained in and knowledgeable about radiation protection. They also must be aware of broader issues that can affect the safety and security of sources, such as long-term management and appropriate disposal of sources. These users would also benefit from lessons learned from previous accidents.

Industrial Users

Users in industrial settings are the most diverse and may have varying levels of training regarding the safe use of sealed radioactive sources. To prevent accidents, users need information about good safety practices, as well as security issues and the potential implications should a source be lost. These users could also benefit from lessons learned from previous accidents.

Scrap Metal Industry

Because improperly managed sources have often ended up as scrap metal, those working in the scrap metal industry need to be informed of the potential risks, trained how to recognize the trefoil radiation symbol and trained in what to do if they should find a source.
General Public

Improperly managed sources pose a risk to members of the general public who may find them, but are unaware of the potential danger.

The toolkit serves as a starting point for information on safety and security of sealed radioactive sources and contains a variety of materials directed at different sectors and users providing a summary of relevant accidents and advising on best practices. It also contains handouts geared towards government agencies, which provide an overview of how to maintain effective control over sealed sources, as well as the long-term management challenges for government officials not necessarily familiar with the issue. A flyer for the general public provides an overview of what sealed radioactive sources are, information on radiation and advice on what to do should a source be found. A fact sheet on radiation and radioactive sources provides a general overview of radiation and radioactive sources and is intended for the media, general public or workers in the scrap metal industry.

These elements may be used as the basis for a presentation or training session or simply given out to these groups. The toolkit provides only an introduction to the wealth of information available from the IAEA to assist its Member States to improve the safety and security of sealed radioactive sources.

The toolkit is available in English, Arabic, Spanish, Russian, Chinese and French. For more information, check the publications section of the IAEA website at


Sidebar: Lessons Learned The Hard Way

Carolyn MacKenzie is a Radiation Source Specialist in the IAEA Department of Nuclear Safety and Security, Radiation Sources Unit. E-mail: [email protected]